by Craig Rogers
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." Theodore Roosevelt
Perhaps that quote sums up the essence of being a Production Director. Every day we are asked to produce spots and promos as good or better than our past work, using the same tools we had yesterday. So the real trick is to learn new ways to use what we have. Hopefully, this column will help you do just that.
Every month R.A.P. subscribers receive The Cassette, chock full of the best production from around the globe. Every Cassette has dozens of ideas ready to be relished, replayed, and recycled. It's one of the most unique services offered by any trade journal.
But no matter how good your ear, unless you were in the studio with the producer, there will always be little techniques and effects that will fly right by, unnoticed. You'll never know the hours of intense labor, sweat, and concentration that went into getting just the right combination of sounds that make the spot what it is. In fact, that's often the best. If the effects are drawing attention to themselves, they may be detracting from the message.
That's where this column comes in. This column will serve as a combination cut sheet, notepad, and fly-on-the-prod-room-wall. You'll read about the creation of a cut or two found on the current Cassette. I'll talk with the producer of the spot, crawl inside his or her head, and come back out with the details on how it was created (I promise to towel off first). We'll find out how the studio is equipped, who the voice talent is, what toys are used (and not used), where the music and SFX came from, and walk step-by-step through the process from nebulous idea to written word to living, breathing promo/commercial/whatever.
It's been my experience that producers don't freely share tips and techniques...unless someone asks. When I've heard something on The Cassette that tweaked my ear and called the producer, many are amazed someone would call to say, "Cool spot, howdja do it?" They think, "Hey, if I know how to do this, then certainly just about everyone else has discovered it by now!" Not necessarily so, oxide breath! You are a much deeper fountain of knowledge than you think. It's time to spout off. And I'll prime the pump (any more ways to twist this metaphor?)
Since this is the first installment of this column, there's been no opportunity to collect tapes from R.A.P. members. And as one of my supervisors used to say: "I wouldn't ask you to do anything I wouldn't do myself." So, for this first edition, I'll take you through my production of a spot for Mother Podolak's Chili.
Ed Podolak played for the KC Chiefs in the seventies, including the 1970 Super Bowl champs. He now is selling real estate in Colorado and during the football season does color for our U of Iowa football broadcasts on WHO. His mother has been making chili for years for pregame tailgate parties, and now they've decided to market it commercially.
First a tour of the equipment used in the production. Board: Ramsa WR-8428 - 28 input, 4 output, 2 send busses. Mikes: EV RE-20, Shure SM5B. Compressor: Orban 424A. Effects: Eventide H3000B. DAW: Orban DSE-7000.
The spot was written by the agency. They hired all the talent, including Ed and his real-life mom, and used our studios. Ed was miked on the SM5B. It's a great warm-sounding mike that really resists pops. It's my general purpose mike when recording clients or other nonprofessional talent. Mrs. Podolak was miked on the RE-20 with a foam windscreen, again to help with the popping that comes with nonprofessional talent.
Ed and Mrs. P. were recorded first, each to their own track on the DSE. To get some isolation, I had Mrs. P to my left as I sat at the board and Ed to my right. This puts them about six feet apart with the nulls of their two mikes facing each other, but bounces from the walls and other surfaces inevitably leak in.
Each mike was run through one side of the compressor. The 424A has two inputs that can operate independently of each other--perfect when miking two people; the compression applied to one input won't affect the other. But, since both mikes were open, the compressor would pull up the unused channel. Thus, Ed would bleed into his mom's mike and vice versa with the level increasing slightly as time went on as the compressor worked to pull the level up to where I thought it should be. There is a gate on the 424A, but I choose to set it lightly to avoid clipping the initial syllable of a line, especially on lighter voices. This extraneous audio is easily erased in the DSE.
Compression ratio was about 3.5:1 for both, with attack and release set just under the fastest settings possible. I like to catch the peaks and control them without squashing things. There will be more compression in the air-chain, so I don't want to overcompress things here.
It took four or five takes to get the pieces we wanted from Ed and Mrs. P.. The first half of their dialogue came from take three and the second half from take five. Easy to cut and paste the pieces together in the DSE. Probably about as long as it took you to read this paragraph!
The announcer was a "real radio announcer," so it was easy to get him to do a number of reads to fit the time available for his tag. He was miked on the SM5B, same compression information as above.
The music came from the Capitol/OGM library as did the studio audience applause. OGM had a CD of applause effects that includes some great studio audience material. It's an old analog recording and a bit hissy, but it's behind voice and music in this spot, so the hiss is negligible. The scraping dish SFX were from the WHO/KLYF archives. A previous client needed cooking SFX for a spot and brought in everything from a pan to dishes to a gas hot plate. I miked them all and made a master reel at 15 ips for the archives. It sure came in handy again! The door SFX are from a TM Century library and the wind as the door opens is from the Wind Storm program (#415) on the Harmonizer. All were recorded in stereo with the exception of the dish because the master was in mono.
The music had to be edited to give a cold ending to the spot. The DSE offers a "splice" that is the equivalent of a two inch splice on tape running at 15 ips. In other words, erasing audio using this "splice" results in a fade up or down of 2/15 of a second. However, the cut is still a bit too abrupt as there is no decay left after the final beat of music. To solve that, the music was run out of the DSE sends through a reverb program on the Eventide (a modification of program #114-Dense Room) to restore some of the lost decay. I punched in the reverb on the last beat of the bed.
On many two voice spots, I will pan the voices slightly off center, one slightly right and the other slightly left to separate the characters in the picture. I didn't do that with this spot. I don't recall any reason for leaving them dead center. I guess I just did!
Not a highly complicated spot--no lasers, no heavy pitch shifting, EQ or stuttering. Give it a listen on The Cassette. Most of us produce dozens of these types of spots every month. I chose this spot for that very reason. It's not full of bells and whistles, but there are little tricks in there that help make it (I think) a solid piece of production. Hopefully you picked up a little tip or two.
Now it's your turn. I welcome your input. In fact I need it! Otherwise, this column will turn into "What did Craig produce this month?" As delightful as that thought might be (to my mom), I'm sure you'd rather hear from everyone else. I'm sure we'll find what sound like outrageously produced spots were much simpler to do than one would expect. And conversely, we'll no doubt find spots that sound like incredibly simple productions actually took a whole bunch of work.
Don't wait for someone else to send a tape. Drop one in the mail today. Send it to the address below. Or drop me a line with the types of questions that run through your mind as you listen to The Cassette. If you're wondering, so are others. Share them with me, so we all can benefit.